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Home > Books > Badminton > Chapter XXIV: The Range and Penetration of the English Long-Bow
Chapter XXIV
The Range and Penetration of the English Long-Bow
By C. J. Longman

IT is out of the question to lay down any fixed limit as being the furthest range to which it is possible to send all arrow from a bow. The reason is obvious--namely, that the distance

reached depends entirely on the strength and skill of the archer. A bow can readily be constructed which would throw an arrow an enormous distance if a man could be found strong enough to draw it. In fact, tile powers of the bow have never been fully ascertained, because, however strong an archer may be, it has always been possible to construct a bow of far greater power than he could draw. Comparisons are often made between the results of the practice of archery and those obtained by the use of firearms. Those who institute such comparisons should always bear in mind one essential point--namely, that a rifleman has but to aim his weapon correctly, and hold it steady, while an archer has also to supply the motive power which propels his missile. Every yard of the arrow's flight is directly the product of the archer's muscular exertion, and its direction depends on the accuracy of his aim, which he must take at the moment when he is already exerting himself to the utmost in drawing his bow.

Many fabulous tales have been told as to the distances to which archers in times past have shot their arrows. Some of these stories are obviously absurd, while others, which seem marvellous, can best be tested by inquiring into the distances which modern archers are able to reach. Having arrived at this fact, it will not be unreasonable to assume that in times when the bow was the most dangerous weapon of war, and when a thousand men practised archery for every one who does so now, there would be a high probability that archers of exceptional strength and skill would from time to time arise who could outshoot the archers of the present day. This inference seems still more reasonable when one reflects that, in the days when the bow was used for war, strength in shooting was of even more importance than accuracy, while the practice of modern archery is almost wholly devoted to the attainment of accuracy at moderate ranges.

It is unnecessary here to cite any of the feats which have been attributed by the ballad-makers to Robin Hood and his band, or any similar legendary exploit; but there is a passage in Shakespeare which bears so much on the subject that it is worth quoting. It is in the Second Part of King Henry IV. act iii. scene ii.:--

Shallow. Is old Double of your town living yet ?
Silence. Dead, sir.
Silence. Jesu, Jesu, dead ! a' drew a good bow; and dead! a' shot a fine shoot; John A Gaunt loved him well, and betted much money on his head. Dead! a' would have clapped i' the clout at twelve score, and carried you a forehand shaft a fourteen and fourteen and a half, that it would have done a man's heart good to see.

From this passage we may take it that in Shakespeare's time to hit the clout at twelve score was considered a great feat, while to shoot a 'forehand shaft, fourteen or fourteen and a half score, that is 280 or 290 yards, was excellent flight-shooting. What a 'forehand shaft' is, is not precisely known, but the context seems to suggest that it was a light arrow for distance shooting--in fact, what we should nowadays call a ' flight arrow.' This passage is quoted because it corresponds with singular exactness to the practice of Ford and other modern archers.

Of the various books on the subject which were published at the time of the revival of archery at the end of the last century, the best by far is Roberts' 'English Bowman.'[1] Mr. Roberts is a careful writer, who does not indulge in the thigh-falutin' style in which some authors have treated this subject He says (p. 102) that he is well satisfied that in modern times no man has shot an arrow a quarter of a mile. He quotes two instances of long shots by archers of his time, but he does not state that he was present on either occasion. The first shot was made by Mr. James Rawson, of Cheetham Hill, near Manchester, who died about the year 1794, and is described by Roberts as being the best archer of his day. This gentleman told Mr. Waring, the well-known bowyer, that he once shot upon ground very little declining in his favour eighteen score, or 360 yards. The force and direction of the wind are not mentioned. Mr. Rawson was a shoemaker by trade, who practiced archery as an amusement from early youth. He was as a man of middle size, but of unusual physical strength. He shot with a backed bow.

The second instance quoted by Roberts took place in 1798, when Mr. Troward, who like Roberts himself was a member of the Toxophilite Society, shot on a level piece of ground on Moulsey Hurst seventeen score, or 340 yards. The weather was very still, and Mr. Troward shot this distance repeatedly up and down wind in the presence of many members of the Toxophilite Society. Each shot was measured with the greatest possible accuracy, tile field having been previously staked out in scores and half-scores. Mr. Troward used a self-bow, pulling 63 lbs., and flight arrows 29 inches long, weighing about four shillings. Roberts says of this shot and Mr. Rawson's, that it is not believed that for at least a century or two past these two instances of distant shooting have been surpassed. it will be noted that both of these gentlemen considerably exceeded the distance which Shakespeare considered worthy of remark.

Mr. Horace Ford[2] says that in modern times it may be safely asserted that very few archers can cover a distance Or 300 yards, and that to attain this range a bow of 62 or 63 lbs. must not only be drawn but thoroughly mastered. He notes that many men may be able to draw a bow beyond this weight, even up to 75 or 80 lbs., but he believes that they will not be able to loose bows of this power strongly, and thinks that they will get a longer flight with a bow well within their strength. It is undoubtedly a fact that what is known as a slashing loose is one of the great secrets of success in flight-shooting, and will beat a dead loose by very many yards. Any tendency to that pause on the loose which is so essential for accurate shooting is quite fatal when distance only is the object in view.

Mr. Ford states that he himself had little experience in this kind of shooting, but in the autumn of 1856, in the presence of a brother archer, he succeeded upon several occasions in exceeding 300 yards. The longest shots he made were 308 yards, with a slight wind in his favour, and in a perfect calm 307 yards I foot. The distance, he adds, Noms carefully measured with tape. The bow used was a 68-lb. self-yew of Mr. Buchanan's, which was not remarkable for quickness of cast, though he found it subsequently a good target bow. Mr. Ford also quotes the experience of Mr. Muir, the well-known Edinburgh bowyer and archer, who found that, although he was possessed of great strength, he could shoot further with a bow of 58 to 62 lbs. than with one of greater power. Mr. Muir, however, never quite reached the 300 yards with a long bow, though on one occasion with a Turkish bow and a flight arrow he accomplished a measured distance of 306 yards. Mr. Ford sums the matter up by expressing his belief that, with practice, 300 yards is fairly attainable by many archers of the present day, and that several might even reach very considerably beyond it, but that to attain this skill in distant shooting a particular study of the art would be required.

Like most archers of the present day, I have devoted but little time or attention to distance shooting, but I have on two or three occasions made experiments in this direction. Like Mr. Muir, I have found myself unable to reach 300 yards with the English long-bow. The first occasion I refer to was in April 1884, when at Abbot's Hill, in Hertfordshire, I shot 286 yards. The air was still; and the distance was measured carefully by Mr. Lewis Evans with a surveyor's chain. I used a 62-lb. self-yew bow by Aldred which was lent me by Mr. C. E. Nesham, and some light flight arrows weighing three shillings and sixpence, which were given to me by the late Mr. Buchanan of Piccadilly.

In September 1893 I again attempted distance shooting at West Bradenham, in Norfolk, in the presence of several friends. On this occasion also I used a self-yew bow by Aldred, kindly lent me by Mr. Nesham, weighing 65 lbs. Mr. Nesham's kindness was unfortunately ill rewarded, as I shortly afterwards broke the bow, though not in flight-shooting. This bow was 3 lbs. stronger than the one I used in 1884, but it had a somewhat dull cast. On this occasion I only reached 269 yards. A strong wind was blowing across the line of flight, which probably did not affect the distance reached. The arrows I used were specially made to my measurements by Aldred. They are thirty inches long and weigh three shillings, and are strongly barrelled, the thickest part being just a quarter of an inch in diameter. The balancing-point is 12 3/8 inches from the end of the nock. They are made of deal with a long piece of boxwood at the head, the box reaching for a foot from the pile to the extremity of the splice. The pile is very diminutive, being less than a quarter of an inch long, and the feather is balloon-shaped, the base being an inch and a quarter long and set very far back (fig. 191)

191. Flight arrow
191. Flight arrow

I give measurements because these are the best flight arrows I have ever had; and should any archer wish to try flight shooting, I should recommend him to try this pattern for any bow up to 65 lbs. I find that they flirt very little, and, moreover, that they do not break when they reach the ground, unless they strike a stone or the trunk of a tree. It is difficult to get light flight arrows which do not fail in one or both of these particulars.

In conclusion, I agree in the main with Mr. Ford's opinion that 300 yards is about as far as an average man can expect to reach, though an archer of exceptional physique can cover another fifty or sixty yards. Probably a man of the herculean power of Sandow, tile professional strong man, would shoot a surprising distance if he were to practice archery, though without such practice it is improbable that he would accomplish any noteworthy shot.

The penetration of an arrow from a long-bow forms an interesting subject for inquiry, though it no longer has the importance which belonged to it in former days. The Welsh historian, Giraldus Cambrensis, who was born about 1147, tells some wonderful stories of the penetration attained by the Welsh archers in the wars of Henry II., tales which are quoted in most of the books on archery. Giraldus is, however, now regarded as an honest but somewhat credulous person, and perhaps too much weight has been given to his legends. They occur in his 'Itinerarium Cambriae,' wherein he relates that there was a tribe called yenta which excelled all the other Welsh tribes in the art of archery. As an example of the force with which they shot, he says that at a siege of a town they aimed at two soldiers, who were flying towards a tower for refuge, hoping to hit them in the back, and that their arrows struck a gate made of holm oak, almost of the thickness of a palm, and penetrated right through it; and that the heads of the arrows were preserved in memory of this remarkable shot.[3]

Another Welsh soldier, he says, shot an arrow at a horseman, who wore mail on his legs and a leathern garment underneath. The arrow struck him on the thigh, which it completely penetrated, through both sides of his mail, passed through the saddle and killed the horse. It must be admitted that if Giraldus tells the truth this Welshman was: something of an archer. As regards the gate--'palmaris fere spissitudinis'--we must suppose this to have represented some three inches of timber. It does not seem incredible that the Welshmen's arrows may have pierced this through; at any rate, if the charge of credulity is to be brought against Giraldus on this score, what are we to say of Lord Bacon, who, speaking of the Turkish bow, says, 'it hath been known that the arrow hath pierced a steel target, or a piece of brass two inches thick'?[4] And, again, that 'an arrow without an iron point will penetrate to the depth even of eight inches into a piece of wood, when shot from a Turkish bow.'

A piece of evidence exists on this subject relating to the practice of archers in the reign of King Edward VI. which is of unimpeachable authority. It is contained in the 'Journal of King Edward's Reign,' written by the hand of the poor young king himself, the MS. of which is in the British Museum. The entry is as follows:--

May 14th (1550).--There mustered before me an hundred archers, two arrows apiece' all of the Guard; afterward shot together, and they shot at an inch Board, which some pierced quite, and stuck in the other Board; divers pierced it quite thorow with the Heads of their Arrows, the Boards being very well-seasoned Timber.

The archers of King Edward's Guard did well enough, but they run easily second to Giraldus's Welshmen.

The penetration of an arrow will depend mainly upon four things--namely, the shape of the head; tile material of which it is made; the weight of the arrow; and the initial velocity with which it leaves the bow. The momentum of the arrow, which determines the force of the blow on the target, is the product of the mass of the projectile (which for practical purposes may here be considered the equivalent of its weight) and the initial velocity. The best penetration will be obtained by an arrow with the greatest momentum, of a shape to which the target will offer the least resistance, and made of a material which will not break up or give under the force of the blow. As I wished in the summer of 1893 to make some experiments with the object of discovering what penetration I could obtain with the bow and arrow, I had some arrows constructed which should fulfil these requirements. The main conditions were that they should be heavier than the ordinary target arrow, stronger, and with sharper piles. In regard to the piles I determined to try two shapes. First, an ordinary conical pile, but made of solid steel and tapering to a sharp point; and, secondly, a flat two-edged spear-shaped pile, also of solid steel, and also coming to a sharp point (figs. 192 and 193). Unfortunately, I am unable to say which shape gives the best penetration, because my instructions were not accurately carried out by the makers in regard to the weights of the different piles. I got no conical piles of the largest size I ordered; and consequently the contest between the piles of this shape and the spear-shaped was not a fair one, as the latter were much heavier. I am inclined, however, to think that the spear-shaped arrows gave the best results, after making allowance for the extra weight.

The first experiment I made at once showed a weak spot in my arrows. I shot against an oak gatepost some nine or ten inches thick at a distance of ten yards with an arrow, twenty-eight inches long to the end of the pile, which was conical. The arrow, which weighed five shillings, was made in the usual way of deal with hardwood footing, and the pile was fixed with a long tang of steel into the centre of the footing. The bow I used was the same 65-lb. self-yew by Aldred, lent me by Mr. Nesham, which I used for flight shooting. The arrow was quite unable to resist the force of the blow, as it smashed off close to the pile, which remained buried for three-quarters of an inch in the gatepost. So tightly was the pile fixed to the gatepost that I was unable to draw it out, and only succeeded in doing so by cutting away the wood round it.

192. Solid cylindrical pile, 193. Spear-shaped pile
192. Solid cylindrical pile
193. Spear-shaped pile

The next shot that I tried was against a stout gate, at some six or seven yards distance, the panels of which consisted of seasoned timber an inch thick. This test corresponded pretty closely with that set to the archers of his guard by King Edward VI., and the result was pretty much the same. I used the same bow and an arrow of the same make as in the former experiment. The arrow on this occasion, having a less formidable target to deal with, did not smash, but penetrated the gate right through, the whole of the pile projecting on the other side. On this occasion also I extracted the arrow with the greatest difficulty, and only by cutting away the wood with a knife. I regret that I did not try my heavy arrows against this gate, as I think they would have made an example of it. I was, however, deterred by the reflection that it was not my gate, and that I had already made one hole in it. This hole can, no doubt, be cured by piece of putt skilfully inserted, but the spear-shaped arrows would have made a more formidable wound.

The next experiment I made was at some of Pettit's fieldgun trial penetration pads, supplied me by my gunmaker, Mr. C. Lancaster. These pads consist of forty-five sheets of the stoutest and toughest brown paper tightly bound together with wire clips. Mr. Lancaster informs me that with an ordinary shot-gun the result is considered exceptionally satisfactory if thirty-five sheets arc penetrated. I tied eight pads tightly to the trunk of a tree, and tested this statement with a 14-bore central-fire gun by Lancaster, loaded with E.C. powder and 1 1/8 oz. of medium game (the size between No. 5 and No. 6) at 20 yards. One shot broke the 32nd sheet; and a gradually increasing number broke the sheets from the 32nd down to the 22nd. The shots themselves were found mostly between the 20th and 22nd sheet.

I also fired with the same gun and charge at seven yards. At this distance two shots broke all forty-five sheets; four broke forty-one; seven broke thirty-nine; and twelve broke thirty-seven; the first shot found in the pad being between sheets 37 and 36.

Taking the bow, I shot a five-shilling arrow with sharpened conical point (the same pattern that I used against the gate) at the pads at seven yards. The arrow penetrated two entire pads and fourteen sheets of the third pad. This seemed to me a remarkable penetration to be achieved with so light an arrow as five shillings or one ounce. It was, however, very poor compared with that accomplished by my heavy spear shaped arrows. These arrows are made of deal and hard wood footing, and are twenty-eight inches long to the beginning of the head, which is 5 3/4 inches long, without reckoning the tang inserted in the footing, the total length being 33 3/4 inches. They weigh eight shillings and sixpence, or very nearly 1 3/4 oz. They seem sufficiently formidable weapons, though they fall short in length of the cloth-yard shafts which our ancestors are reputed to have habitually drawn to the head. At seven yards this arrow went clean through four entire pads, and penetrated fifteen sheets of the fifth pad.

It is, therefore, obvious that a sharp arrow shot from a strong bow at short range will inflict an infinitely deeper wound than a charge of shot. I imagine that the further the distance the greater the advantage of the arrow would be, as at very short range a charge of shot is forced on by the wad, and possesses some amount of cohesion, so that its momentum is considerably greater than that of the individual pellets. Moreover, at distances of 100 yards and upwards the arrow is still sufficiently dangerous, while a charge of shot is nearly spent.

I also had some cartridges loaded with spherical leaden bullets, weighing 1 1/8 oz. and 2 1/2 drs. of black powder. At twenty yards the bullet, when fired from the same Lancaster gun, penetrated four entire pads and injured about half of the fifth pad, the bullet itself being found much smashed and dissorted in the fourth pad. This corresponds very closely with the result obtained with the arrow at seven yards, so that it appears that a leaden bullet of 1 1/4 oz. with 2 1/2 drs. of black powder behind it is rather more dangerous than a sharp arrow weighing 1 3/4 oz. from a 65-lb. bow. At ten yards the bullet penetrated five complete pads and injured the sixth, the remains of the bullet being found in the fifth pad. I had hoped to have extended my experiments considerably; but unfortunately, as I have said, the bow broke, and I had nothing left but target bows, which were not strong enough for this purpose. I hope, however, to find time to resume this inquiry at some future date; and I trust that some other archers will amuse themselves by experiments both in distance shooting and in penetration.

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